- Stephen A. Smith, ESPNNewYork.com columnist
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Kobe Bryant is not smart he's brilliant! A brilliant basketball player, an astute business mind and easily one of the pre-eminent ambassadors the game has ever known.
Now what Bryant needs to be is someone who remembers that there's a responsibility that comes with being a steward of the National Basketball Association, especially during collective bargaining negotiations that could determine the fate of the league for years to come. He needs to remind his contemporaries that the mentality of bickering and blaming must be shoved aside in favor of legitimate problem-solving, if one of the most popular leagues in North America is to stay that way.
Players' union president Derek Fisher tweeted Tuesday, "We want to go back to work," talking of how players want to play basketball. But it's something they might have been able to do weeks ago if the faces of the NBA had been the individuals sitting across the table from the league's labor relations committee sometime ago.
That means Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire, Dwight Howard, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, Deron Williams, Chris Bosh, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and even a relative novice like Derrick Rose.
These are guys who are marketable, who generate revenue, who are the very guys the sport needs in order to build on the reported $4.3 billion the league generated in revenue last year.
(Note: We're excluding LeBron James from these talks because of the ire he stirred up in league owners over how he handled his decision to leave Cleveland. No need to exacerbate the issue.)
We're talking about highly paid NBA stars, all earning or expected to earn in excess of $80 million.
Presumably, these are individuals who understand business, whose negotiating stance is something other than, "The owners are trying to screw us."
I'm talking about individuals who actually absorb the reality that whether there are 10 to 15 teams losing money, or the 22 the NBA claims, change is necessary -- and inevitable -- if approximately half the league is losing money.
"I'm here," Bryant texted a couple of weeks ago. "Always been here."
Perhaps that is true. But he needs to be seen, because Bryant, more than anyone, would resonate to those who matter.
No one with sense ignores a five-time champion, a former MVP and a quintessential box-office attraction like Bryant, who validates it all with a work ethic that usurps his level of production. Particularly when that player is in the second-largest market in the country, just finished off his previous $136 million deal, is about to collect another $83.5 million over the next three years -- and no one would think of questioning why.
"Kobe attended the last meeting in L.A.," one union negotiating official told me about last month's union meetings to update everyone on the status of the CBA talks. "He is aware of what's going on and he's involved. Kobe's smart and calculating. More importantly, he's about business. By virtue of that alone, he is about what's in the best interest of the league."
Good! So it should be easy for him to understand why his presence needs to be felt now more than ever before. All he needs to do is look at history.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Isiah Thomas, a future Hall of Famer and two-time world champion, served as president of the National Basketball Players Association. At every turn, Magic Johnson was involved. As were Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo and, of course, Michael Jordan.
If they weren't at the meetings, they were talking to union officials. They were constantly aware of the issues, capable and willing to speak practically about them because they knew they would be approached and that their words would resonate.
They understood owners were like fans, that stars were more indelible fixtures than no-names. They not only were involved, they wanted to be involved, just as those who came before them were involved.
"It matters now more than ever because there are no bad guys in this situation," said Charles Grantham, former executive director of the players' union and one of the architects of the NBA's existing revenue-sharing agreement with the players. "The owners are not being greedy, and the players are not wrong for wanting to hold on to what they have.
"There are just problems that need to be resolved. At some point, the future of the league has to take precedence of appearing to win a negotiation. Nobody wins by pointing fingers at this stage. You win by being committed to getting a deal done."
For the owners, it means creating a system similar to what the National Football League and the NHL have these days, in which most teams are making money and a better financial structure exists. For the players, it should simply mean avoiding losing approximately $800 million in player salaries like they did during the lockout-shortened season in 1998-99 -- which they never recouped.
Whether both sides can reach a deal remains to be seen, but the one thing that's clear is that if a deal is not reached, and the season is jeopardized or flat out canceled, the players will suffer significantly more than owners based on financial portfolios alone.
Bryant, however, is not one of those players. Having made more than $200 million in salary over his career, he will be, it's fair to say, just fine.
That's why players will listen when Bryant speaks. He's the one with the credentials, devoid of the residual animosity from the other side.
Bryant is what an ambassador is supposed to be. Now it's time for him to embrace this latest challenge.
Even if it ends up being the biggest of his career.
Follow Stephen A. Smith on Twitter: @stephenasmith.
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